GRAIN | 06 December 2000 | Seedling - December 2000
Sprouting Up: BATTLE LINES DRAWN OVER AGENT GREEN
Action against the fungus designed to kill narcotic crops, known as Agent Green, has been stepping up around the world. Intended to kill opium poppy, coca, and cannabis plants, the microbes present risks to human health and biodiversity. There is imminent danger that a highly infectious fungus will be deliberately released in Andean and Amazonian centres of diversity. The US-backed fungi have already been used experimentally on opium poppy and cannabis in the US and in Central Asia. Fungus targets include hundreds of thousands of cultivated hectares in narcotic crop-producing countries in South, Southeast, and Central Asia, along with Mexico, Central, and South American countries.
Agent Green refers to strains of the fungi Fusarium oxysporum and Pleospora papveracae that have been developed in the US. These microbes might infect and kill plants other than the targets of coca, poppy, and cannabis in ecologically sensitive areas of Asia and the Americas. Agent Green has only been tested on a limited range of commercial crops, which is little indication of how the fungi will behave in the varied and poorly-understood real-world ecologies where they might be used. "The USA is playing roulette with irreplaceable biological diversity" says Susana Pimiento Chamorro, a Colombian lawyer with the Sunshine Project. "In Colombia, four close relatives of coca are already listed as endangered. Agent Green might be the last step to their extinction." Local ecology could be drastically affected. One of the most highly prized butterflies in the world, the Agrias (Agrias sp.) depends on cocas wild relatives in Amazonian rainforest for its survival.
Even more disturbing is the fact that strains of Fusarium oxysporum are highly toxic to animals and humans. Birds feeding on plant seeds are endangered, and consumption of the coca leaves - which is legal in Peru and Bolivia - might pose a health threat. "Fusaria can produce mycotoxins that are deadly enough to be considered weapons of war and are listed as biological agents in the draft Protocol to the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC)," says Sunshine Project biologist Dr. Jan Van Aken. There is no exemption in the BTWC, a key international arms control treaty, for the use of biological weapons in military, law enforcement, or civilian actions to forcibly eradicate illicit crops. Countries North and South recognize that prohibiting any use of biological weapons is critically important to stop arms proliferation, uphold treaty commitments, and protect human health and the environment.
Once released into the environment, the deadly fungus cannot be recalled. Indeed, the coca fungus appears to have escaped scientists grasp when it jumped into control plots during field tests in Hawaii. The fungus has been clearly rejected in the US, the worlds number one producer of illicit cannabis. Last year, the Florida Environmental Protection Agency emphatically opposed and halted a proposal to use Fusaria. According to the Agencys director: "It is difficult, if not impossible to control the spread of Fusarium species. The mutated fungi can cause disease in large number of crops Fusarium species are more active in warm soils and can [reside] in the soil for years."
Senior US officials have failed to obtain the financial backing of other governments for the plan. But this has not stopped US drug warriors from pressuring Asian and South American countries. Through the offices of the UN Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), pressure is being put on Colombia especially, which has already drawn up a plan to eradicate illicit crops. Although the plan is opposed by government officials and civil society both domestically and internationally, the Colombian Environment Ministry has prepared a US $7 million project proposal for work on illicit crops including a major component to develop biological weapons to forcibly eradicate coca crops. The only donor country that has expressed interest is the US, making it the logical funder for the proposal. Earlier this year, Colombia refused to sign a controversial US funded contract with the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) for the testing of a US-developed Fusarium oxysporum strain named EN-4. But it only renounced this single strain. Colombia is moving ahead with the development of "native" biological weapons developed from a wide variety of local pathogenic organisms, which it considers will be safer than the US EN-4.
Colombias proposal mimics US usage of the deliberately confusing misnomer "biological control" when referring to coca-killing agents and spray technology. In fact, they are not legitimate biological controls; but weapons designed to provoke massive disease outbreaks and remain in the soil for decades. The term is being abused by when applied to this biological weapons research. In other parts of the world, a program in Uzbekistan supported by the US, UK, and the UNDCP is developing weapons to eradicate opium poppy. These agents are to be used in conflict-torn parts of Asia, including Afghanistan and Burma.
The US says that the fungus varieties it wants to use in developing countries are not genetically-engineered. But its has created genetically-modified strains in the laboratory. US scientists have also cloned virulent genes from related fungi (Fusarium strains that attack potatoes) with the possible intent of increasing the kill rate of anti-drug fungi.
An international network of NGOs including the Sunshine Project, the Latin-America Free of Transgenics network, Accion Andina, the Transnational institute, Accion Ecologica, and many more NGOs in Colombia and all over the world are working to stop all use of biological eradication agents. A number of countries in South America are already considering legislation against the use of biological weapons against illicit crops, and some African countries have also spoken out against their use.